Authors: William Rabkin,Lee Goldberg
Copyright © 2011 by Adventures In Television, Inc.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover design by Carl Graves
Face of Evil
by Lee Goldberg & William Rabkin
Ring of Knives
by James Daniels
Hell in Heaven
by Lee Goldberg & William Rabkin
The Dead Woman
by David McAfee
The Blood Mesa
by James Reasoner
That’s what the sign at the exit said. Heaven, Washington, elevation 5,100 feet, population 136. Except that the last digit had been crossed out and replaced with a seven, followed by an exclamation point in black spray paint.
Matt hadn’t intended to stop this morning. His plan was to ride straight on through the day, stopping only for gas when he saw a station, keep going until he was too tired to stay on the bike. These mountains were beautiful, but he wasn’t here for the scenery. He was on a mission.
He’d started out hitchhiking, but quickly got frustrated at how much time he was spending standing on the sides of empty roads. So he used three-quarters of his cash to buy a slightly dented, ten-year-old Buell Blast motorcycle from the widow of its last owner and headed out Route 20 on two wheels. That took him across the Cascades in the northern part of the state and kept him away from the big cities. He didn’t know where he would find Mr. Dark, but he was pretty sure that a man—if that was what Mr. Dark was—who thrived on evil would find himself more comfortable in a major metropolitan area than Matt, whose one foray to Seattle for his 21st birthday had left him stunned by the number of people who could be packed into one small place.
At first the freedom had been exhilarating. It was just him, the bike, and the open road. He’d spent his entire life—and his entire death—in a small town in a small corner of a small state. Now the world spread out in front of him.
Trouble was, it kept spreading. Matt rode his entire first day without seeing another person, except for the long-haulers way up in the cabs of their logging trucks. The second day wasn’t any different, except that his muscles were stiffer. By the end of the third he could barely bring himself to set up his small tent.
None of this would have mattered if things had been going more as he’d assumed. He’d figured that as soon as he hit the road he’d see signs of evil everywhere and they’d lead him directly to Mr. Dark.
But if Mr. Dark was out there, he was doing a good job of hiding himself.
He’d already used his only lead, and he hadn’t come across anything that looked like a second. The bike might have been faster than trying to hitch rides, but it still wasn’t getting him anywhere. When he set out that morning, he decided to give this one more day, and if nothing happened spend some quality time working on plan C.
Matt had been going for a little more than an hour when he saw the sign. Heaven, next exit, five miles ahead.
It almost made him break out laughing. What better place for a dead man to pass a little time than Heaven? If nothing else, it would be a break in the monotony.
Matt took the hard right turn off the highway and found himself on a one-lane road that wound even higher into the mountains. It twisted and turned for what felt like hours, and Matt began to think he’d made a mistake taking the exit.
Then the road straightened out. He crested a small hill, and then gasped in shock as he saw the tiny town spread out in front of him.
It wasn’t the place itself that took his breath away, although Heaven wasn’t exactly what he’d expected. He’d been through enough of these tiny Cascades towns to anticipate the mix of tumble-down shotgun shacks and sagging doublewides, the second-tier fast-food franchise next to the shuttered video rental outlet and the not-quite-super store with its bargain prices across the street from the struggling local market, the one that still carried animal feed and replacement parts for wood-burning stoves and all those other bits and pieces that no one could be bothered to mass produce in China.
Heaven seemed to have skipped the commercial revolution of the late 20th century. There was a general store that, from its hand-painted and weathered signs advertising feed and tack, tackle and firewood, seemed to be strictly local. If Dairy Queen or Foster’s Freeze had ever established a beachhead here, they had been driven out by Mabel’s Eat Fresh Diner Café, which looked like it had stood on its corner for a century.
As Matt glanced up the short main street he realized that there wasn’t anything here that didn’t look like it had been built before the invention of modern construction materials and techniques. None of the pre-fab structures that had polluted the main street of even so insignificant a town as the one he’d grown up in. The storefronts were all wood and peeling paint. Matt couldn’t see much down the few dirt roads that extended off the main drag, but what he did see was mostly small bungalows, well-maintained but tiny, with metal chimneys for the wood stoves and nothing that suggested indoor plumbing.
That was only slightly strange. There were probably dozens of similar little villages scattered all through the Cascades, logging towns that had thrived briefly during one boom or another, then faded away over the years. If there was anything weird about this town it was only that the state had bothered to put up a sign at the highway exit.
And it was no real surprise that the main street was deserted. For all he could tell, Heaven might have been abandoned decades ago. Or maybe it had been built as a set for some movie that had come and gone while he’d been dead, and these buildings were nothing but facades left to melt away in the rain and snow.
What took Matt’s breath away, what hit him with such force it nearly threw him back over the end of the motorcycle, was the banner that hung over Main Street, stretched between the grocery store and the bank.
The banner that read: WELCOME HOME, MATT.
As Matt’s bike moved closer to the banner, he began to realize that this town wasn’t deserted. There were people in all the windows.
Not that he saw any of them. Not directly, anyway. They seemed to be hiding behind doors and curtains and blinds. But every time he turned his head, he saw faint traces of movement, as if someone had just ducked out of sight.
Not much of a welcome
, Matt thought.
String a banner, then hide.
He was just about to gun the engine and lean into the u-turn that would take him back to the highway when he heard a bell ding behind him. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the door of the general store swing open.
A young girl took one hesitant step onto the sidewalk. She looked like she was about eleven, with long black pigtails hanging down over a blue calico dress and black boots on her feet. She stared at him intensely, then took another step closer.
A hand reached out from inside the store, but the girl shrugged it off. “It’s him,” she said. “It’s
The girl moved out of the doorway. It was like popping the cork of a champagne bottle. People flooded out of the store and into the street. And it wasn’t just the store—people were emerging cautiously from the diner and the doctor’s office and the mechanic’s garage.
They came out into the street, but they wouldn’t come close to him. They all stayed what Matt realized would have been a “safe distance” if he’d been a wild animal that had wandered into town. That gave him a chance to study them as they did him.
Once again Matt had the sensation of wandering into a time warp or a movie set, although at first he couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly odd about the people of Heaven, Washington. They looked like the same worn-down, hard-working people you’d find in any small town in America. There were old men with the cracked and calloused hands that come from a long lifetime doing manual labor. There were young women, barely out of girlhood, cradling babies in their arms. There were husbands and wives whose stress-lined faces made their ages impossible to read. And of course there were the children peeking out from behind their parents’ legs to get a glimpse of the stranger, then ducking back again, giggling. They all seemed to be related, or at least there were a couple of strong gene pools dominating the population, as similar features repeated on face after face. But that was hardly a surprise in a town of this size.
The people of Heaven looked just like the ones Matt had left behind—burdened with care and determined to press on, even though they knew things would never get better. And yet there was something wrong here. He just couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was.
Then he saw. The men who were spreading out into the street all wore jeans and work shirts and heavy leather boots. Some of the women were dressed the same way, but most were in dresses of gingham or calico over their high black boots. The boys were mostly wearing overalls; the girls, jumpers. The clothes were solid and sturdy and were probably worn until they dissolved into threads.
This was how dirt farmers dressed in the Depression. It wasn’t what people wore in small towns today—not the small towns Matt knew, anyway. There were no logos. No T-shirts claiming that beer isn’t just for breakfast anymore, or that life is too short to dance with fat chicks or even announcing that some relative went to some tourist attraction and all the bearer got was a stupid shirt. There were no baseball hats with corporate names across the front. And what really stood out for Matt, there were no Nikes. No Adidas or Asics or New Balance or even Keds. There were no athletic shoes at all. Every place he’d ever been, that’s what people wore. Except at the saw mill where steel toes were required, and even then all the workers couldn’t wait to change back into their Pumas or whatever.
That told Matt all he needed to know about Heaven, Washington. He couldn’t say if these people were neo-hippies turning their backs on the corporate, Walmart culture or some weird religious group like the fundamentalist Mormons who despised all of modernity, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t want anything to do with any strange sect, religious or secular. Because it never really mattered where they started from; they all ended up the same way. He’d read enough about Jonestown and Waco and Heaven’s Gate out in San Diego to know that.
Matt glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the street behind him had filled up with people. If he needed to get away fast, the only way out would be to gun the gas and hope they jumped away in time.
But maybe he didn’t have to. Matt scanned the faces of the people who’d come out to greet him. There wasn’t a trace of rot on any of them, not a sign of the evil Mr. Dark could spread with one touch.
Maybe they weren’t some insane cult. Could it be they were the opposite? That these people really did know who he was? Maybe they’d been expecting him all along. Expecting him for years.
The town was called Heaven, after all.
Maybe this is where he was
He’d chosen the eastward road without understanding why. Was it possible that he had been sent this way? That Heaven, Washington, was where he’d finally learn why he had been brought back from the dead, and what he was supposed to do next?
Matt shut off the engine and put down the kickstand. The townspeople crowded around him, faces filled with longing, hands outstretched to touch him.
Like he was their messiah.
He climbed off the bike and took a step forward. The people closed in around him. He could see joy in the eyes of the little girl with the pigtails, the one who’d led the rest of them out onto the street.
Matthew reached up and lifted off his helmet.
When Matthew had been little, his mother had taken him to stay with her sister for a few weeks. The only thing he remembered about the trip was that his aunt had cable, and he’d flipped channels for hours on end, astonished that one television could hold so many programs. One afternoon he came across a scene that had stayed with him ever since. A bunch of soldiers and scientists were assembled on a beach as a life raft brought a trio of astronauts from their sinking space capsule. The soldiers all saluted as the astronauts stepped onto the sand. Then their happy smiles turned to expressions of shock as the astronauts took off their space helmets, revealing themselves to be giant monkeys.
That was what the townsfolk of Heaven, Washington, looked like now.
The young girl’s face dropped, then twisted into a mask of fear. The rest of the crowd stared briefly, then one by one turned around and walked sullenly back to the sidewalk.
Matt stood frozen in place, trying to understand what had just happened.
“You must think we’re all crazy here,” a voice said from behind him.
He turned and found himself looking into the warm, blue eyes of a woman wearing a bright summer dress even in the cold. There were small lines in her face and her blonde hair was fading to gray, but she still had the look of someone who had just left girlhood behind.
“I don’t know what to think,” Matt said honestly.
“We’re expecting someone,” the woman said.
Matthew gestured up at the banner. “I got that,” he said. “But I’m the crazy one. Because for a minute, I kind of thought you were all waiting for me.”
She looked at him, puzzled, and then broke into a smile. “You wouldn’t be Matt, would you?”
“Matthew Cahill, but Matt’s what my friends call me,” he said, then looked at the sea of backs moving away from him. “I guess that’s not going to be an issue around here.”
“They’re just disappointed,” she said. “They’ve been waiting for such a long time.”
“Waiting for Matt.”
“Waiting for Matthew Delaney,” she said. “We got word he’d been sent back from the war more than a month ago. We thought he’d be back right away after that, but there was some problem with his discharge papers. Then they told us he’d picked up some kind of bug, and he’d have to stay in the military hospital in Seattle until they were sure he was over it. Yesterday we heard he’d been released and would be heading home.”
Matt hoped he didn’t look as embarrassed as he felt. “I’m sure he’ll love the welcome.”
“He never was much one for sentimental displays,” the woman said. “When he signed up, he didn’t even tell anyone until the day he was due at basic, just so he wouldn’t have to go through a lot of good-byes. So we’re not taking any chances this time.”
The road was entirely clear now. The townsfolk had all drifted back to the sidewalks that ran the three blocks of the commercial district.
“I’m sure it will be worth the wait,” Matt said. “If I found a crowd like this waiting to welcome me home, it would be worth just about anything.”
“As long as you knew some of them,” the woman said. “It must have seemed pretty weird thinking all these complete strangers were celebrating your arrival.”
“I’ve seen weirder,” Matt said.
He meant it as a joke, a quick exit line to be tossed off as he climbed back on his bike.
But the woman didn’t laugh. She grabbed his upper arm with surprisingly strong, calloused fingers and pulled him around so she could look directly into his eyes. After a moment, she released his arm, nodding thoughtfully.
“Yes, I suppose you have,” she said.
“Do I look that bad?” Matt said, trying again to lighten the strangeness of the moment.
This time it worked. She gave him a warm smile. “I guess I’m keeping you here,” she said, although the tone in her voice suggested she wasn’t sorry about it. “You probably have places you need to be.”
“Actually, no,” Matt said.
“That’s good,” she said, “because this road you’re on doesn’t really go anywhere. Couple miles up, it turns into a fire road. Except they keep cutting the forest service budget and road maintenance seems to be the first thing to go, so it’s more of a fire trail now. Or maybe it’s nothing.”
“Thanks for the information,” Matt said. “I really just came this way because I saw the sign on the highway…”
He trailed off, realizing how ridiculous the rest of the sentence would sound.
“…and wanted to see what Heaven looked like, right?” she said with another one of those warm smiles. “You wouldn’t be the first. So does it live up to your expectations?”
Matt took another look around the tiny town. The people were drifting back toward the general store and the diner and the other businesses; some were heading up the dirt roads to their homes.
“Small town like this isn’t for everyone,” she said. “But what it’s got to offer you can’t find anywhere else.”
Except maybe in Waco
, he thought.
“I guess not,” Matt said, then lifted his helmet. “I’d better be going.”
She took his arm again, those surprisingly strong fingers digging into his muscle. “Do you have to?”
Matt thought of all those jokes and stories he’d heard over the years about travelling salesmen and lonely widows. But the look she was giving him didn’t have any lust in it.
She was afraid.
,” she whispered.